<
>

Monga: No point punishing ball-tampering harshly if the home team never gets caught

Match referee Javagal Srinath in conversation with Sri Lanka coach Chandika Hathurusingha AFP

"It has been an eye-opener for me, that, 'Hang on, ball-tampering around the world is considered cheating.'"

ICC chief executive David Richardson said that during a tele-conference announcing a review into the ICC code of conduct in the aftermath of the Cape Town Test. It was a good sign that the ICC was finally going to clamp down on abuse and shaming of players on the field, which could also lead to cheating in order to win at any cost.

However, listening to Richardson's views on ball-tampering in isolation sounded alarm bells. It indicated that the ICC had perhaps held a less stern view of it previously - a more pragmatic one - but that the reaction to Cape Town was going to change it.

That reaction - more from vanquished former opponents of Australia who had waited decades for an opportunity to stick the boot in, and from unbearably self-righteous ones in Australia rather than the general cricket supporters - had been extreme. These former captains wanted nothing short of blood. They got it through bans on the Cape Town trio, and tears.

There were always going to be institutional repercussions. It would now be near impossible to continue like the ICC had since the Oval walk-off in 2006: be okay with missing out on a few ball-tamperers, impose penalties when players are caught on camera, and don't go out of your way to heap added shame to the offence.

This over-the-top reaction to Cape Town was an opportunity for the ICC to actually step in and do a proper review of ball-tampering: raise the question if it is at all possible to work on a ball to get reverse swing without resorting to artificial substances, whether some artificial substances such as mints and gums can be allowed but not nails and sandpaper, whether harsher penalties will completely drive reverse swing out of the game.

However, instead of being the wise heads that administrators are supposed to be, the ICC fed the frenzy, giving out signals that it was going to yield to the outrage and clamp down on ball-tampering. Soon it emerged the ICC had all but decided to bump ball-tampering offences up to Level 3 in the Code of Conduct.

It would have been smooth if ball-tampering was a straightforward issue, if the only parties involved in the offences were the players of the two teams, the umpires and the match referee. Ball-tampering is an offence that needs evidence, and evidence comes from a party that cannot afford to be neutral. It is naive and populist to come down hard on ball-tampering without addressing the influence of the host broadcaster.

Sri Lanka's captain Dinesh Chandimal was the seventh case of ball-tampering since the Oval incident of 2006; all seven have been nailed by video evidence, all when playing away from home. Neutral tournaments - albeit one-dayers and T20 - have had no such incident, except once in the Champions Trophy in 2013 when the ball was changed but no reason was provided. Penalty runs were not awarded either. Off the record, those in the ICC acknowledge that reliance on broadcasters is a hindrance to fair implementation of ball-tampering sanctions. It is not a coincidence that home players never get caught.

Now with the stakes even higher, the chances of a home player being caught tampering are even slimmer. Broadcasters have a business to run, and it is actually worse for the people working in the field: commentators have lost their jobs for far less tangible damage than a director might cause by catching a home player in the act. This is not to say that broadcasters want to wield this influence. Some want the ICC to take over the decision-making. The ICC, though, cannot take over decision-making because it involves paying technology vendors money, and that money will have to come from the share of the member boards. Good luck convincing them.

Having said all this, Chandimal and Sri Lanka did not come out of the latest ball-tampering episode looking clever. Even if they had missed the reactions to Cape Town, even if they hadn't paid attention to Richardson, they should have listened to match referee Javagal Srinath in the pre-series briefing.

The captains were told the ICC was going to be extra vigilant "towards all aspects of fair play, including changing the condition of the ball". Sri Lanka's reaction to the charge was even less wise. A walkout - as Inzamam-ul-Haq showed in 2006 - works only if there is no evidence. Perhaps Sri Lanka thought there was none, but eventually the delay caused by their refusal to take the field on the third morning cost them the time to force a win and level the series. It will look sillier if they don't appeal Chandimal's one-Test ban now.

In the light of recent events, the harsher penalty is perhaps deserved, but it is actually good that Sri Lanka did what they did. It is a reminder that top-level professionals in competitive sport will go considerable lengths to claim an advantage, as long as they are not caught and have that evidence shoved in their faces.

If ball-tampering has become such a plague that it needs to be controlled so heavy-handedly - 14 incidents in the last 24 years, and seven in the last 12 is hardly an epidemic - then you have to do so through a fair and objective process, and not through one that appears to favour home sides. The game is already skewed enough in the favour of the home team. Also, it is debatable whether tampering is such an evil in the first place: bowlers acknowledge off the record that most of the means to obtain reverse swing are not legit under the code. The irony of the Chandimal verdict coming out on a day that emasculated bowlers with no reverse swing at their disposal went for 481 runs in an ODI was not lost on observers.

The most uncomfortable part of the ICC reaction is that it was driven by the outrage to Australia's actions in Cape Town. If only we had a former Test captain with over a million Twitter followers and a Prime Minister outraging against the 10-team "World" Cup.